WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Aug. 18, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that North Carolina state legislators who were elected under racially gerrymandered districts do not possess unlimited authority to amend the North Carolina Constitution. This decision arises out of a 2018 lawsuit filed on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP challenging two amendments to the North Carolina Constitution, one of which imposed a photo ID requirement in order to vote and the other of which lowered the state income tax. The plaintiff in the lawsuit alleged that these amendments should be struck down because they were originally placed on the ballot by a racially gerrymandered General Assembly comprised of districts deemed unconstitutional by a federal court in Covington v. North Carolina. Notably, the proposed amendments were rushed through the Legislature after the districts were found to be unconstitutional but before remedial elections were set to occur under a new set of constitutional maps. Furthermore, the plaintiff contended that the three-fifths majority required in both houses of the state Legislature in order to place an amendment on the ballot (that would then be voted on by the general public) would not have been met under constitutionally drawn districts. The state trial court initially struck down the challenged amendments in favor of the plaintiff, but the state appellate court then reversed the trial court’s decision and reinstated the amendments. The plaintiff subsequently appealed this decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In today’s opinion, the majority held that multiple provisions of the North Carolina Constitution “limit the legislators’ authority to initiate the process of amending the constitution under these circumstances” — meaning that the legislators were elected to a General Assembly in which 28 of its districts were found to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The majority further maintained that “requiring persons to be bound by a constitutional amendment which specifically targets a group to which they belong for disfavored treatment, and which was enacted by a legislature formed through a political process designed to deprive them of an equal voice, is repugnant to the principles of popular sovereignty and democratic self-rule.”
In addition, today’s ruling also found that the trial court’s decision striking down the two amendments at issue was too broadly sweeping. Instead of voiding the two amendments altogether, the majority remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings with instructions for assessing whether the voter ID and state income tax amendments should be “retroactively invalidated.” The opinion noted that because the unconstitutionally elected legislators were “sufficient in number” to have a potentially decisive effect in the vote on the bill that proposed the challenged amendments, three factors must be considered by the trial court when assessing whether the challenged amendments should be nullified. These factors include whether the amendments: “1) immunize legislators elected due to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering from democratic accountability going forward; 2) perpetuate the continued exclusion of a category of voters from the democratic process or 3) constitute intentional discrimination against the same category of voters discriminated against in the reapportionment process that resulted in the unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts.” In accordance with these guidelines, the majority opinion directs the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing and enter “additional findings of fact and conclusions of law” in order to ultimately decide whether the challenged amendments should remain in effect.